In South Carolina, when a U.S. senator resigns, the governor is responsible for appointing a replacement until the next election. Sen. Jim DeMint has opted to leave his post in order to join the Heritage Foundation, and Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party Republican like the departing DeMint, is looking for his replacement.
My friend, professor Herb Silverman is no stranger to amiably tongue-in-cheek runs for public office (see his lovely autobiography, “Candidate Without a Prayer.” A few years ago he ran for governor of the Palmetto State for the sole purpose of testing the constitutional stipulation of the state that no person could be eligible for the office of governor who denied the existence of “the” Supreme Being (which supreme being, one can’t help asking: Baal?). When asked what would be his first act, in the unlikely event of his being elected, he characteristically replied, “Demand a recount.”
Now Silverman is again seeking high office. He is asking Haley to appoint him senator for the state. Joking he may be, he is actually extremely well qualified. His presence would constitute a significant increase in the average IQ of the Senate, and he is also a man of unusual good humor and goodwill, far outclassing many in that august body.
However, beyond the chuckle of Silverman beating satirist/television host Stephen Colbert as well as established GOP politicians in an informal poll, the real issue – the real purpose of his campaign – is to challenge the presumption that an openly atheist candidate could never successfully run for high public office.
Polls consistently suggest that atheists are the least trusted group in America. This presumably stems from the bizarre prejudice that you need to believe in a (“the”?) supreme being in order to be moral. Really? The illogic behind this is staggering. Are we really so cynical as to think that, without the threat of divine retribution – or without the promise of divine reward – we are unlikely to be good, unlikely to behave generously, altruistically or morally towards our fellow creatures? Herb Silverman is one of the most moral men I have ever met – genuinely and disinterestedly moral, for he expects no celestial payback for his righteousness.
In any case, the remarkable vilification of atheists – who differ from the Christian majority only in respect of a rather esoteric philosophical distinction – contrasts oddly with the fact that people with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) are the fastest growing segment of the American population, hugely outnumbering religious Jews, Muslims and most Christian denominations. There seems to be an odd mismatch.
It is high time for those Americans who have given up superstition – and all belief in supernatural spooks – to make themselves felt as a strong political force. The “nones” have plausibly been given credit for the re-election of President Obama, while those “nones” who are of a conservative bent seem to offer the best hope for the Republican Party to detox itself of the tea party poison and put the grand back in the “GOP.”
Humor can sometimes offer the best approach to open dialog on sensitive issues, and this was the purpose of Silverman’s write-in campaign. But he also offers a serious strike to the heart of an important issue which America must face: the fact that religious radicals, ignorant of science and all that is best and most cultivated in our civilization, have succeeded in creating a climate of bigotry towards the millions of decent, usually intelligent and well-educated Americans who live their lives peacefully, morally and honestly, without the need for any god.